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Microsoft's 64-bit Story Improving

Microsoft officially entered the 64-bit computing fray when it introduced its Windows Advanced Server Limited Edition (ASLE) last year. At the time, ALSE bowed in conjunction with Itanium, the first-ever 64-bit microprocessor from Intel. It’s fitting, then, that as Intel prepares to officially unveil its next-generation Itanium 2 microprocessor, Microsoft is poised to release a revamped version of its 64-bit Windows platform – ASLE 1.2 – to OEMs later this month.

Microsoft’s 64-bit story has gotten dramatically better in the last 12 months. Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) committed to Intel’s proposed 64-bit architecture – IA-64 – at a very early date, and had a version of its HP-UX operating system tweaked for IA-64 in time for Intel’s Itanium launch last year. Similarly, several Linux vendors – Red Hat, SuSe and TurboLinux among them – released IA-64 versions of their Linux distributions before Itanium officially debuted.

Microsoft, on the other hand, didn’t ship ASLE until August 2001. And its release of a 64-bit variant of Windows XP was timed to coincide with the general availability of 32-bit Windows XP in late October. Since that time, however, the software giant has ramped up its 64-bit development efforts. For the record, Microsoft currently supports two 64-bit variants of its Windows platform – ASLE, and a 64-bit version of Windows XP, which is aimed squarely at the high-performance desktop workstation market.

But Microsoft has also promised to prep new 64-bit versions of its Datacenter Server and .NET Server enterprise operating system platforms, as well. According to Velle Kolde, lead product manager in the Windows .NET server group at Microsoft, the upshot of it all is that the software giant will introduce two additional 64-bit computing platforms by year’s end.

“[We expect] to ship 64-bit versions of its Windows .NET Enterprise Server and Windows .NET Datacenter Server by the end of the calendar year. Each of these products will support Intel's Itanium 2 processor,” Kolde says.

As far as Itanium 2-specific enhancements are concerned, Kolde explains, all three operating system platforms ASLE 1.2, 64-bit Datacenter Server and 64-bit Windows .NET Enterprise Server – have been tuned to take advantage of Itanium 2’s architectural enhancements. Accordingly, Microsoft’s new 64-bit platforms are tweaked to more effectively exploit Itanium 2’s faster clock-speeds and more scalable bus architecture.

But even though Microsoft’s 64-bit story has gotten a lot better with respect to its operating system platforms, support for IA-64 among its .NET application family continues to lag. In May 2001, for example, Microsoft unveiled plans to develop and market a 64-bit version of its flagship SQL Server database, which at the time was scheduled to ship in conjunction with, or shortly after, the release of the software giant’s Whistler -- .NET Server – operating system platform. .NET Server has been delayed until late 2002, however, and 64-bit SQL Server hasn’t yet made its appearance, either.

In spite of the delays, Kolde confirms that 64-bit SQL Server is still on track to debut with Windows .NET Server. “[We] plan to release a 64-bit version of SQL Server concurrent with Windows .NET Server [release to manufacturing],” Kolde says, noting that other application groups inside of Microsoft haven’t officially committed to IA-64 strategies, however. “Other product groups have not yet announced their 64-bit plans,” he acknowledges.

In comparison with established 64-bit RISC microprocessors, Itanium 1 was something of a dog: Its clock-speeds were less-than-overwhelming, and its computing performance fell short of high-end RISC alternatives such as HP’s PA-RISC, Sun’s Solaris and IBM’s Power microprocessors, among others. Itanium 2 promises to reverse this trend, however, and many analysts expect that it will at least match, if not outstrip, established RISC microprocessors.

“The performance of the product is extremely competitive,” argues Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with microprocessor consultancy InSight64. “Last year’s Itanium 1, primarily because it was very late compared with its original plan, really was unexciting with regard to its performance vis-à-vis alternatives that were already established in the market. Itanium 2 is right in there, however. It’s going to be as fast or faster than virtually all of the established RISC alternatives.”

Despite Itanium 2’s bona-fide performance, however, Microsoft is unwilling to commit to it for use in most production implementations. Officially, the software giant stresses that 64-bit versions of Windows are best deployed to support development, testing, or early adoption strategies.

“Currently Windows 64-bit server systems are best used for continued development, evaluation, and limited deployments by early adopters,” Kolde asserts. “We do see real benefit on [the] server side for customer’s with large databases and other memory intensive applications.”

Nevertheless, Microsoft anticipates that IT organizations will eventually move to IA-64 – especially as more 64-bit Windows applications become available. “As companies’ performance and memory needs grow, we anticipate adoption of 64-bit technology will increase. The increase in 64-bit applications will also likely increase the number of companies switching to 64-bit systems,” Kolde says, noting that Microsoft hasn’t disclosed any IA-64-specific operating system or application development roadmaps beyond the 64-bit versions of Windows .NET Datacenter Server and Windows .NET Enterprise Server that it plans to ship later this year.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.

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